Perry Point volunteers share their Montana wildfire stories

THE BALTIMORE SUN

After two weeks of battling the Rough Draw Fire in Montana, two crews of Maryland firefighters returned home last week, and 13 AmeriCorps volunteers returned to their base in Perry Point.

The group's deployment included a close call that sent them running up a mountain to escape rapidly spreading flames.

The Maryland firefighters flew into Montana, where the Rough Draw Fire was just becoming a problem, and were the first crew on the scene.

After several days, the fire had joined with several smaller blazes to form the Rough Draw Complex Fire. The firefighters worked steadily to contain the flames.

"There was a lot of activity. It was very impressive, very exciting," said AmeriCorps member Jay Gregory.

The volunteers were about halfway through their two-week deployment when a cold front came in, indicating possible wind changes. Because of the weather conditions, the crew received a 20-minute briefing that morning on the location of safety zones throughout the work area.

Spreading fast

Later that day, during a routine round of putting out hot spots, two smoldering trees in the work area quickly became 20, and then became a 120-acre blaze in a matter of minutes, forcing everyone to run.

While one crew was able to go back down the mountain, the other crew had to run up, toward a safety zone of rocks where the fire couldn't reach them.

The crew bosses ordered everyone up the rocky terrain toward safety. "The fire sounded like a train coming up behind us," said AmeriCorps volunteer Jessica Amundson.

The heat was so intense that one member came back with a blistered backside. Nevertheless, everyone reached the safety zone in time to avoid serious injury.

Awesome experience

AmeriCorps member Noel Peterson expressed awe at the size of the flames.

"I had my choice of cuss words when I saw them. I started running and I had gotten about 50 feet before I realized I was passing everyone. I saw people below me, and at that point I felt very calm about it and I wanted to make sure everyone was OK."

Peterson turned around to help others make their way up the mountain, paying special attention to the emergency medical technician that was having trouble carrying her 50-pound pack up the rocky incline.

The group stayed in the safety zone while a helicopter came to find a clear path for them down the mountain. They were able to leave the rocky area just as rain began.

"They did an excellent job. They were very enthusiastic, very eager to work. Even after the situation we were in, everybody's spirits were up," said crew boss Chuck Hecker.

Hecker, who fought his first wildfire in 1988, said the experience was not typical for an AmeriCorps crew. The Maryland firefighters were part of the type of crew that does not make direct attacks on the fire, but is primarily involved in digging containment lines to stop a fire and working on areas that are no longer burning but are still smoking.

"They told us during our training that we shouldn't even expect to see flames," said AmeriCorps member Erin Sovick.

By the time the firefighters were on their way home, the Rough Draw Fire had been contained.

Impressive work

"It's really unusual to be able to see a fire go from start to finish like that in just two weeks. It's really impressive what we were able to accomplish," AmeriCorps member Kim Jones said.

As the 13-member crew returned, their headquarters at Perry Point dispatched a new eight-member team Wednesday to help fight a fire at the Burnt Ridge Sheep Camp Complex near Niehart, Mont.

The new crew consists of team leader Scott Gates, 24, of Montgomery, Ala.; Kevin Czarnecki, 23, of Oak Lawn, Ill.; Scott Dornbusch, 24, of Cincinnati; Terika Koehntopp, 23, of Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.; Amy Levine, 23, of Scottsdale, Ariz.; Lisa Mahoney, 24, of New Iberia, La.; Kelly Waldbillig, 23, of St. Paul Park, Minn.; and Myrna Yuson, 23, of Tracy, Calif.

The Burnt Ridge Sheep Camp Complex consists of four wildfires in the Lewis and Clark National Forest. The fire had consumed more than 3,000 acres of forest by Friday evening.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources trained the AmeriCorps members in February.

The program teaches safety when fighting fires, how to read fire behavior, how to use the equipment and the structure of the firefighter command system.

AmeriCorps members must complete 1,700 hours of service during their 10-month term. In exchange for their service, they receive $4,725 to help pay for college or repay student loans. AmeriCorps is administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Many of its volunteer programs have no upper age limit.

Information: 800-942-2677.

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